The Oscar Warrior: The Mysteries of Argo

Last week was one of the more interesting ones in the Oscar race as nominations were announced with lots of shocks and surprises. The biggest one, and the one many people are still talking about, is Ben Affleck’s snub as the director of Argo. Even more amazing than his omission was that within three days of those nominations, Argo won Best Picture and Affleck took Best Director both at the Critics Choice Awards and then again at the Golden Globes. The question that may raise in many minds, as it should, is, “How can something like this possibly happen?”

Lucky for you, The Oscar Warrior often spends countless hours lying awake thinking about things like this and I think I’ve figured out what happened as well as why it may in fact have been the best thing that could have happened to the movie.

Everyone will freely tell you that the track record for movies winning Best Picture without having a corresponding director nomination isn’t a good one. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to 1989 and Driving Miss Daisy to find a Best Picture winner that didn’t have a nomination for its director. The obvious question is: Why would the Academy support a movie as its Best Picture when they didn’t feel the direction was good enough to nominate the filmmaker?

You have to bear in mind that the Academy is made up of a lot of different branches and each branch gets to nominate for their own specific category – actors nominate actors, costume designers nominate costume designers, etc.

If you think about it, there’s little reason why the directors could have consciously omitted Affleck’s direction or that it could be a mere oversight. Alphabetically, both his last name and the name of his movie would be at the top or close to the top of any list – just below Amour whose director did get a nomination. One can probably assume that most if not all members of the Academy would have heard of the movie and many of them would have had a chance to see it. Argo was a huge box office hit since it opened in October and there’s been tons of press for it as Ben Affleck had done the talk show rounds and been a lot more present while representing the movie than either of his previous movies. Warner Bros. also sent out screeners for Argo fairly early in the season so every member of the Academy, including the directors, had a chance to watch it.

Some may think that submitting nominations is a simple process of picking your favorite movies from those involved and you’re done, but in fact there’s a lot of politics and overthinking involved that goes into every aspect of it. As a member of the BFCA who votes for the Critics Choice and the New York Film Critics Online, I’ll often hedge my nominations so that lesser-known candidates will get my first choice and sometimes I won’t nominate a great performance or movie because I feel my colleagues will already have thought of it.

That hedging happens a lot more now that voting members of various groups know how the system works, although that may have been thrown out of whack when the Academy switched to the new online voting system which had many Academy members confused and frustrated trying to navigate. Suddenly, all bets were off and there’s a good chance that more tech-savvy voters who might appreciate more eccentric arthouse fare like Amour and “Beasts” were heard over older voters who might appreciate a period thriller like Argo.

A lot has changed from a few years ago besides the online voting. The first and most important difference is that this year, the Academy Awards have an earlier nomination deadline than any previous year. Normally, Academy members used to have at least a week and a half after the Golden Globes to get their nominations in, which meant that the DGA nominations and the earlier award shows could have some impact at least on who they nominated. It’s not unheard of for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to go in a different direction than the critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press – in fact, winning the Golden Globe in recent years has lessened the chance of winning Best Picture at the Oscars. Even so, it may have been one of the strangest anomalies to have Oscar nominations announced before the Critics Choices Awards and Golden Globes were given out.

The other major change is that we now have between five and ten Best Picture nominations every year, something done to allow more acknowledgement for the work of filmmakers in any given year… but not just let ANY movie get a Best Picture nomination. But we still only have five directing nominations and that’s become a growing problem, especially this year when we had so many good movies. Before the nominations were announced, most Oscar pundits assumed there were three locks for a directing nomination with two slots that could possibly go four or five different ways. Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg seemed like locks with Ang Lee, Tom Hooper, David O. Russell and Quentin Tarantino vying for the other two slots. When the DGA announced their nominations on January 8 (after the nominations deadline for the Oscars), it pretty much confirmed those thoughts with Hooper and Lee receiving nominations.

With all of that in mind, I devised a theory why Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated despite the clear support for Argo among critics and the populace and the rest of the Academy. See, Bigelow may just be a clear case of the fact she won an Oscar just three years ago and the same could be said for Tom Hooper although both their movies were technically proficient enough to deserve kudos in other categories. Affleck, on the other hand, has never been nominated and if the Academy felt they wanted to get new blood in with the previously-nominated candidates, as they proved by nominating Zeitlin and Haneke, he was an obvious choice.

Personally, I think there’s a good chance many members of the Academy’s directing branch assumed everyone else would nominate Affleck and Bigelow, because they had been receiving so much support from critics, and decided to give their first nomination to less likely candidates such as Michael Haneke for Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin. In recent times, we’ve seen a similar phenomenon on competitive reality shows like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” where home viewers assume that the best singers or dancers don’t need their support, that they’re “safe,” and next thing you know, the best of the bunch are in the Bottom 2 and close to going home. Our theory is that the same thing happened with the directors who assumed Affleck and Bigelow were “safe” so they spread their nominations elsewhere rather than putting either of them in their Top 2 choices.

While both Amour and “Beasts” had clear support from the Academy, neither received key technical nominations for their editing and cinematography, which tend to go hand in hand with direction. That seems rather telling that their directing nominations were anomalies and that the other branches didn’t share the same opinion with the directors. Incidentally, eight of the nine Oscar-nominated films received at least one acting nomination compared to last year when only four of the Best Picture nominees received any acting nominations. (In 2010, eight of the ten nominated Best Pictures received acting nods.)

At this point, many might think there’s no way Argo could win Best Picture if the Academy’s directors didn’t think the movie was worthy of nominating Affleck for his direction and unfortunately, history may back up that claim. In the past few years, Best Picture and Director have gone to the same movie with only a few exceptions, most notably in 2003 when Roman Polanski won director for The Pianist, but Chicago took Best Picture. It happened again in 2006 when Ang Lee won for Brokeback Mountain, but Crash won for Best Picture. It hasn’t happened since then.

So with that in mind, why would anyone suggest that not receiving an Oscar nomination for Affleck as director might actually help Argo? Easy. The Academy members outside the directing branch who felt Affleck deserved that nomination and feel he was snubbed by his fellow directors—and this includes members of the acting branch, writing branch and technical members–will have this snub fresh in their head while voting and they could easily turn around and say, “Hey, I liked ‘Argo’ and Ben did a great job directing a more ambitious film” so in order to give Affleck his due, they’ll vote for Argo for Best Picture. Enough members of the Academy feel this way–that their pick for film and director was snubbed–then Argo can pull an easy victory over some of the more divisive and less obvious choices that received directing nominations.

We’ll know for sure when the guilds start announcing their winners later this month and in early February. If the DGA ends up picking Affleck, we suddenly have an Apollo 13 situation, which is what happened in 1995 when Ron Howard won the DGA but wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Braveheart won that year even though it didn’t win the DGA*, which is somewhat daunting for Argo, but again, different times and the proximity of Argo‘s wins to the directing snub puts a lot more focus on Affleck and his movie.

Of course, if the DGA goes with Spielberg and the PGA and/or SAG pick Lincoln, then that’s almost guaranteed to win it all on Oscar night, but it’s nice that this is a year when we still might have some surprises in store for us and writers like myself don’t automatically have every scenario and win mapped out due to the early precursors.

*This has been corrected


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